Empathy-based virtual reality training a 'game changer' for Halton police

A new virtual reality (VR) training program is giving police officers the chance to virtually stand in someone else's shoes. 

Halton Police to use VR technology to teach officers empathy when dealing with mental health related calls

Trainees will wear a VR headset and go through different modules to experience what it feels like to be both the person in crisis and the responding officer. (John Lesavage/CBC)

A new virtual reality (VR) training program is giving police officers the chance to virtually stand in someone else's shoes. 

The Halton Regional Police Service (HRPS) has launched a program to provide empathy-based training by simulating scenarios with people who are experiencing mental health issues.

Trainees use a VR headset to enter into a virtual world where they will have access to three different modules: autism, schizophrenia and suicide prevention.

"I have personally experienced the virtual reality scenarios and I will tell you that this initiative is a game changer for the policing sector," said Staff Sgt. Dave Tutte.

The immersive technology is the first in Canada and allows the officers to put themselves in the shoes of both the officer responding to the call and the person in crisis. 

The modules are designed like a decision tree, where officers will be taken through scenarios and asked to make decisions from options presented to them. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Designed like a decision tree, trainees will see the scenario and can make decisions from the options presented to them. 

"For the first two minutes or so, you are that person who has autism, who is schizophrenic or is in a suicidal place. And then after a couple of minutes, it flips, and you are the responding officer," Tutte said.

'You can tell that person is stressed'

The program is meant to give officers a different perspective and experience people in crisis in a controlled environment with the hopes that they will approach real-life situations with a better mindset. 

Sgt. Dave Preece describes what it's like when the simulation puts you in the shoes of someone experiencing mental health issues. 

"Wearing a headset," Preece says. "You can tell that person is stressed when the officers come. You can tell that that creates a level of anxiety for them."

Halton police service is planning on rolling out the training program in January 2020. (John Lesavage/CBC)

And for Preece, that's enough to teach him that he needs to do everything he can to de-escalate the situation and to minimize the stress of the person in crisis in real-life scenarios.

"If an officer can be given this training in advance and they can develop some empathy and have a better understanding of what someone could be dealing with, it could ultimately affect their decision-making when dealing with that person in crisis," Tutte said. 

Tutte said that the HRPS attends around 3,500 calls a year that involve someone in crisis. 

The innovative program will complement their existing training and will launch in January 2020. 

The company behind the technology, Axon, says more modules are in the works, including scenarios involving people with dementia and those who are hard of hearing.

With files from Talia Ricci